Chapter 16
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Diving Into Civil War History

Historian Tom Chaffin raises the H.L. Hunley and chronicles the birth of submarine warfare

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war. Machine guns, aerial reconnaissance, telegraphs on the battlefield, and a host of other innovations not only made the conflict deadlier, but quickly revolutionized the world. Among these firsts was an odd little boat, built by a group of dedicated entrepreneurs, that heralded the age of underwater exploration and warfare. In The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, historian Tom Chaffin details the remarkable story of the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.

As Chaffin, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, notes in The H.L. Hunley, the South prior to the Civil War was not associated in the popular imagination with any seagoing feats of greatness. But when, on February 17, 1864, a crew of eight men in a forty-foot long, cigar-shaped submersible sank the USS Housatonic and then vanished into the depths, the South found a maritime legend to its liking. The Hunley and its fate fired the imagination of naval and Civil War buffs around the world, causing decades of speculation and rumor. When the craft was finally located and later raised—in a dramatic, public operation in 2000—the ensuing archaeological investigations generated much public interest, more tourist dollars for Charleston, South Carolina, and more questions.

The Hunley was one of the Confederacy’s responses to the effort by the much larger Northern navy to starve the South’s economy, Chaffin notes: “Facing such superior firepower, the Confederacy, hoping to break the Union’s blockade of its ports, searched for cheap alternatives to conventional warfare.” When Horace L. Hunley, a native of Gallatin, Tennessee, and his partners suggested that a submarine would help, they found a receptive audience despite the concerns of some in the military that sneaking up on an enemy would be unethical. The technology was cutting-edge and, as with all new technology, prone to bugs. Three such craft were built by the group; one that was scuttled to avoid capture, one that was lost with all hands during sea trials, and the Hunley—originally christened the Fish Boat—which ultimately killed more Confederate than Union sailors.

The Hunley‘s one, costly success was, however, spectacular and precedent-setting. It came too late in the war to make any difference to the outcome, but demonstrated proof of concept and partly drove the pursuit of submarine technology by European powers in the buildup to World War One. Chaffin, whose expertise in nineteenth-century American history has been previously demonstrated in books about the Confederate raider Shenandoah and explorer John Charles Fremont, has provided what must be considered the definitive history of this wondrous, innovative, but ill-fated little ship.